Bond would boost river communities

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AUGUSTA – Just a few days into the real work of the Legislature, and groups are already working to build support for borrowing proposals.

First out of the gate publicly is a bipartisan group of lawmakers and advocates pushing a $25 million bond for riverfront development.

Crowded into the State House Welcome Center on Tuesday, they made their pitch for why Maine should invest in development tied to rivers.

“The health of our rivers is critical to the economic development of our state and to the maintenance of the quality of life that we all love and enjoy in Maine,” said Lewiston state Sen. Peggy Rotundo, a Democrat who is sponsoring legislation creating the bond.

“In my district of Lewiston, residents have come to appreciate the great untapped potential that our wonderful river, the Androscoggin, offers and the role it will continue to play in Lewiston’s renaissance,” she said in a prepared statement.

The bond, if approved by the Legislature and voters, would create a competitive grant program. Communities, large or small, along rivers could apply for support on specific projects.

Many of the details of how the grant program would be administered were not available Tuesday, including the size of grants, how they would be awarded or who would administer them.

In rough outline, the grant would require communities to seek $2 of matching money for every $1 in grant money received.

“Too many communities don’t have the facilities to take advantage of their rivers. And as a result, neglect threatens the rivers again,” said Rep. Thomas Watson of Bath. “It will allow us some leveraged money to do good things for the rivers, to allow communities to control the areas around the river, provide new access, greater access to those outside, and take advantage of a natural resource.”

The Riverfront Community Development Bond won’t be the only one vying for support in the Legislature and, potentially, with voters. A $60 million bond proposal for road and bridge improvements will also be considered, and although not public yet, other bond proposals are expected to address improvements to wastewater infrastructure, and research and development.

Lewiston state Rep. Margaret Craven, another Democrat, said there will be a lot of competition among the bond proposals the Legislature will hear this year.

“I have high hopes this year,” she said of overcoming political hurdles that blocked new borrowing last year. “There’s a lot of need and a lot of room for borrowing.”

She also said the riverfront bond fits well with many of the economic development ideas contained in a Brookings Institution report, which has dominated early discussions among lawmakers in Augusta.

But, she said, tough choices likely are ahead.

“It’s very important to do development,” Craven said. “But clean water, as well as wastewater, is at a crisis level because much of our infrastructure is more than 100 years old. No matter how much development you can attract, you still have to have the infrastructure to support it.”

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